Women and the public space: Part 1

“Muslims kill Christians every day. How do you defend that?” the pastor demanded to know. The Muslim man smiled and repeated a story about the hospitality of Muslims towards travelers and guests of all faiths during the blessed Prophet’s days. I put my hand up to respond to the pastor’s combative rhetoric saying, “Muslims deplore killing! Many of us participate in human rights organizations to fight against such violence.” But neither perceived “leader” extended the courtesy of engaging me in polite conversation since, to them, I was only an American born Muslim woman whose presence was unwelcome.
“She has no place or status here,” the Muslim man said to the visiting pastor, explaining that my participation in the interfaith discussion was irrelevant. To add comedy to the drama, the overzealous henchman of the Imam leapt at me, as he had done to my friends in the past, demanding I leave the mosque.

I did not leave. I moved to the wall and prayed 20 rakas, not begging for forgiveness, but for the tranquility of a public space where I would feel welcome. Ironically I was made to feel uncomfortable in a mosque that had embraced even President Bush – a man whose policies had fanned the fires of suspicion and fear towards Islam. While mosques began as prayer spaces, for Muslim Americans they now serve as much more. Mosques today are social and cultural hubs with not only prayer halls, but also daycare, gyms, bookstores, and conference rooms which encourage activities beyond worship. This reality begs questions like what public space means for the community and how does this concept apply to mosques. Board meetings among mosque leadership, as well as dinner table conversations in Muslim American homes across the country, suggest a struggle to find a balance between the need to provide an open, accessible gathering space for the Muslim community, and the need to protect the sanctity of a house of worship.

Yasmina Blackburn, a second generation Muslim American, believes that, as a public space, a mosque should be a safe place to enter. If a person is unable speak their mind in a mosque without coming under attack or facing intimidation, as was the case in the opening story, then this house of worship is no longer a free, open gathering ground for its visitors.

On the other hand, Omair Javeed, a third year medical student, explains that even a public space requires maintenance and regulation. “Users need to respect and defer to the authority of those charged with maintaining that space,” Javeed explains. He goes on to acknowledge the underlying power struggle in the case of mosques, citing that at the crux of the identity crisis of mosques sits the question of who is in charge, and therefore, who decides what qualifies as appropriate, respectful behavior in this public setting and what does not.

As with most talks on religion, when discussions of mosques and public space are had, the issue that usually creeps to the forefront of the debate is that of women. While female access to mosques tends to be framed as an issue of women’s rights, with discussions deteriorating into screaming matches about which Hadith is more valid, in reality, women’s access to mosques boils down to a question of whether or not a Muslim house of worship falls under the category of a public space (i.e. a park or a library).

“Theoretically, a mosque should be a public space to all interested in either worship or in learning more about Islam,” says Daanish Faruqi, editor of book From Camp David to Cast Lead. “How this manifests itself, on the other hand, is a different matter altogether. Gender becomes a point of contention that may compromise a mosque’s [identity as a] public space because women are frequently precluded from entering mosques as they please.”

Dr. Zaher Sahloul, former president of the Mosque Foundation agrees that far too many women complain to their local mosque’s leadership about limited access to guest speakers, lack of clean and open areas in which to pray, and a generally dismissive attitude by leaders and staff members towards women’s concerns. Leaders treat these complaints with apathy when they should jump into action. Dr. Sahloul recommends changing the unequal culture in mosques by first conducting a basic survey of the women who do attend prayers and programs regularly and those who do not to gauge their perception of the mosque atmosphere, and pinpoint the most important grievances.

Ultimately, the leadership should involve women in the decision making process at the highest levels. Women coming into leadership roles within their mosques assures that the female perspective is represented when it comes to formulating policies, and offers women a stake in the mosque’s success, says Dr. Abdulgany Hamadeh, president of MECCA in suburbs of Chicago. He warns, however, that the change must be gradual so as not to lose favor with those who see the status quo as perfectly fine.

Perhaps the problem is more layered than a mere lack of opportunities for women’s participation. As Dr. Randa Loutfi points out, “Instead of encouraging women to participate, which they already do, we need to encourage men’s acceptance of, and respect for, women’s participation. We need to frame it as an essential community need, not only a concern of women.”

There continues to persist the notion that a woman’s responsibilities and influence should remain confined to the privacy of her home, while a man’s rightful place is in the public sphere. If a woman does venture into a public space, she must defer ultimate decision making power to a man. Although one might shrug off this idea as a relic of the past that no longer applies to the educated, professional Muslim American women we see in 2011, when it comes to issues of religion, “the mosque is for men” mindset still prevails. Thus women’s prayer spaces are tucked away in basements or behind barriers, women are only put in charge of sisters’ and children’s programming, and female prayer goers are expected to dress a modest and somewhat formal way, while men can show up in their pajamas.

While women have been arguing for years that according to Islamic teachings they should be allowed equal participation and respect in mosques, perhaps it is time to look at the issue of women and mosques as an indicator of the larger challenge of the female’s place in a public space and what it means for the future of the Muslim American community that mosques are not operated in a manner which make them a safe and comfortable public space.

(Photo: Nir Nussbaum)
Mehrunisa Qayyum and Ramah Kudaimi are Contributing Writers to Altmuslimah. This is part one of a three part series.

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